Published in RUNWAY Experimental Art | Guest edited by Keg deSouza
Issue #35, 2018
Read online

Megan Cope is part social cartographer, part spy. Lingering within the dualistic space of split heritage, contested land, and a canyon of conflicted personal encounters, the Quandamooka woman powers her arts practice by exposing the myths and interloping nature of Australian colonialism. Painting, video, sculpture, and installation become a speakerbox for Cope to map the cultural constructs of identity and environment. Having grown up rattled by racial prejudice, the artist has since learnt to address and circumvent hegemonic sovereignty – be it physical, geographical, and metaphorical – by remapping for herself a new vernacular for decolonisation.

Mariam Arcilla: I was at an art show recently, and someone said to me, “You know Megan Cope in person, right? How Aboriginal is she? Like what bit? Because all I see is blue eyes, white skin, slim nose.” Their tone of scepticism made me so livid. But it’s not the first time someone’s asked me this about you.

Megan Cope: I’ll get that question from people until the day I die, no doubt. 

MA: You’re a descendent of mixed blood, being both Aboriginal and white. I want to ask you about the space you occupy within this split heritage, and how others have interpreted this…

MC: My father is Noonuccal/Ngugi of Quandamooka and my mother is white. What’s interesting is that I pass as a white person, so, most people don’t believe I’m half-Aboriginal, unless they’re Aboriginal. This is probably the only place that conflict lies in my life. Because I look white, people often see it as an insult whenever I show pride for my Aboriginal side, or when I try to keep my Indigenous culture alive, as it’s a culture that white fantasy has sought to destroy since the boats lapped on our shores. 

MA: How did this affect you, having to convince people of your Indigenous heritage? 

MC: Obviously, it was a great concern to me growing up when people either rejected my Aboriginality, or what I had to say from an Aboriginal perspective. This pernicious scale could vary from a slight dismissal when I offer to explain a natural phenomenon or a story of a place or people, to the flat-out cruel denial they serve me about Aboriginal people simply no longer existing – that they ‘won’ and we lost. 

At the same time, because my Aboriginal side is ‘invisible’ to people, I feel like a secret agent who gets to see and hear what people really think about Indigenous people. With art as my weapon of choice, I become an undercover blackfulla, turning these observations and anthropological notes as critiques in my practice. This is similar to what Judy Watson once said about her Aboriginality going undetected when she’s at public events; she likened it to being fly in the wall. 

MA: Your arts practice explores the contested space of identity politics, environment, decolonisation, and toponymy. Can you talk more on this?

MC: Like most artists, I make art about myself or the things that I think are interesting. These works depict my reality, but they tell stories that are not only mine, as our culture is not individualised or binary, and these stories are also due to the collective experience that is Australian colonisation. I choose to focus on the dualisms that lie within Australian psychogeography [1], and to challenge those notions of purity, history, power and property or land. 

MC: And so to connect this beyond my fair skin and blue eyes, my practice needs to situate itself in a space of psychogeographic layers that have built up over time, throughout the natural history, altered landscapes, and remnants of public policies that were enacted over tracts of land and peoples. I’m not sure if many Australians consciously realise that it’s not just just Aboriginal people and minority groups that have been traumatised by white hegemony, but it’s also the environment and vast eco-system in which our peoples belonged to, and which informed our identities over millennia, that has been affected.

MA: You credit your father’s upbringing for helping shape your understanding of your culture, and this influence has seeped into your practice. What role does your mother play in your life? 

MC: When I was born, my mother wanted to adopt me out. Then, she went absent when I was 18 months old, so I was raised by my father. It’s unusual for people to hear stories of young Aboriginal men raising a child in the 1980’s; it’s even rarer to hear stories of young Aboriginal men raising children successfully. These are the stories I want to live on through my identity and my practice. Because of this, my connection to my father’s side is one of deep loyalty. 

MA: Have you felt any pressure to make works as a commentary on your white side? 

MC: Well, I eventually met my mother again when I was 14, and she asked me why I didn’t make art about my white side. My mother resented me for being proud of my Aboriginal side. But I was raised by my father, so all that I know, and am, was learnt from him. It makes me think of the late and great Gordon Bennett, and how he felt like his artwork was a result of his birth and inherited ancestral legacies.

MA: How does your work, ‘The Blaktism’, address these conflicted, dualistic feelings?

MC: The Blaktism was the tipping point of almost 30 years of my own experience that I have mentioned so far, topped with my father’s experience, topped with my Nanna’s experience, shared with my many cousins’ and colleagues’ lived experience… you can see where I’m going with this. I’m pleased to say however, that since making The Blaktism I’m no longer concerned about what the white hegemonists think. It’s as if I have made a mirror and demonstrated the effects of colonisation and the problematic nature of separating people from place. It’s interesting, this space of dualism – it must be a white thing, don’t you think? The idea that everything needs to be defined and categorically ordered within the terms and conditions of the hegemony, and for its material value to then be quantified and possessed. That said, nothing will ever change the way I grew up, and the family that I have; this is fixed and so is its geography of which we own and embody within our collective identity. 

[1] Psychogeography explores the psychological influence that geography and environment have on a person’s emotions and behaviour. This impact can be expressed through “a political statement, defiance of the capitalist system, a seizure of power and a mode of play.” Ridgeway, M. (2014), ‘An Introduction to Psychogeography’, The Double Negative  (Last accessed: 7 November 2017)

Images: Megan Cope with her work, Minjerriba, 2015, Giclée military map and acrylic on canvas, 125 x 345 cm. Megan Cope, Qld b.1982 / Fluid Terrain 2012 / Vinyl on glass (art work produced from watercolour and synthetic polymer paint on military maps with digital text) / Site-specific commission for ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’ / Courtesy and ©: The artist | Megan Cope, The Blaktism, 2014, still from Single channel HD video. All images courtesy the artist.